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Why Jake Groves will actually probably start for Virginia basketball this year

The Oklahoma transfer is in line for a bigger role than we’ve given him credit for.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics

As we edge closer to the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team’s season opener on Monday, one player who we’ve underrated in our coverage is likely due for a more prominent role than we (and, specifically, I) have been predicting.

Jake Groves — the stretch four/five transfer from Oklahoma — is in line to start and play serious minutes this season. It won’t and shouldn’t be every game and it’ll likely be matchup dependent. But his fit in the frontcourt as a small ball five or a stretch four will be a necessary component for this roster and one that is used more often than I originally thought.

Both due to a re-evaluation of the other options in the frontcourt, a second look at Groves’ game, conversation with people who know what they’re talking about, and the scuttlebutt coming out of UVA’s scrimmages and press availability, I’ve come to the conclusion that Jake Groves is probably going to start on Monday versus Tarleton State and will play a much bigger role than I’ve been anticipating he would this season.

With that in mind, here are three reasons why he’s the likely starter for UVA on Monday and for a batch of games this year.

It’s 2023, not 2015

The game of basketball and Tony Bennett’s approach to it have both changed, and Groves likely starting at the five for the ‘Hoos speaks to that fact. Whereas Jordan Minor might fill a more traditional role as a physical big who could anchor the defense and screen for the offense, Virginia’s scheme has evolved beyond relying on such a player over the past decade.

Not only have the ‘Hoos favored more shooting in their frontcourt, but they’ve also been more flexible within their defensive schemes to allow for shooting bigs to play more minutes. Bennett is now more willing to switch ball screen coverages to alleviate problems that slower or less mobile bigs have with hedging ball screens.

Offensively, UVA’s default sides offense has incorporated more ball screens to the point where shooting ability in the frontcourt is additionally valuable beyond bigs merely slipping to the short corner after setting pin-downs. Groves will give UVA’s guards more room to attack the basket from the wings by backing out and drawing his defender with him.

He also provides more schematic versatility. Groves’ three-point shot — which tickled the twine on 38.1% of his attempts last season — should help to pull opposing bigs to the perimeter in UVA’s triangle/three-man offense as well. And his ability to slip ball screens especially in the team’s four-out spread high ball screen offense will let Reece Beekman attack the paint off screens while keeping defenses honest.

Ryan Dunn limits any glaring defensive issues

Although Groves will likely have defensive deficiencies, frontcourt teammate Ryan Dunn is such a special defender that he can solve most problems that arise.

Since he started playing Power Five basketball, Groves hasn’t been much more than a respectable rebounder. But Ryan Dunn is elite on the defensive boards and can similarly crash the offensive boards.

At 6’9” and 211 pounds, Groves isn’t built to bruise against the best and biggest post threats. That’s where Minor and Blake Buchanan can be more useful. Yet even when Groves is on the floor against such opponents, Dunn has the length, size, and instincts to double at the right time, disrupt the post player, and to recover when the ball is moved elsewhere.

Even in ball screen coverage, the perimeter defenders Virginia has in guys like Dunn, Reece Beekman, Dante Harris, Leon Bond, and Elijah Gertrude should allow UVA to play more drop coverage when Groves’ man is setting screens because they can trust those guys to fight through the screen and use their plus athleticism to stay tagged to their man.

And, perhaps most importantly, Dunn can almost always guard the best opposing player. Stretch fives or fours like Kyle Filipowski are the types of player that Dunn thrives against, so Groves won’t be primarily responsible for defending opponents’ top scoring threats.

Groves is a proven major conference basketball player

... which is something UVA doesn’t have in the frontcourt beyond him and Dunn, who for all the talent has only played 401 minutes of college basketball.

There are also elements of Groves’ game which project to be better at Virginia. Of his 97 three-point attempts last season (three per game), a whopping four of them were open catch and shoot looks, per Shot Quality. In fact 58 were categorized as guarded C&S attempts, and his success rate on those shots registered in the 63rd percentile. Bottom line, he took more difficult shots at OU than he will at UVA, and that should at least mean that his 38.1% shooting from the perimeter is maintained.

Groves has also defended major conference players before. Even if he’s lacking the athletic intangibles of a Dunn, Buchanan, Bond, or even Minor, he has more experience in power conference basketball than all four of them combined. He’s dealt with guarding the pick and roll against truly talented guards before. He’s had to play against legitimate size and strength, and at the very least won’t be shocked by the level of competition in the ACC.

Tony Bennett’s comments that UVA will likely have a rotating starting lineup this season makes sense especially given the relative strengths of its various frontcourt players. After Ryan Dunn, it’s highly unlikely that another frontcourt player starts every or even a serious majority of games for the ‘Hoos this season.

Particularly in non-conference play against opponents with less overbearing size, Groves fits a necessary role for the Virginia offense while not posing a major problem for its defense. With four years of college basketball and a pair of seasons in the SEC under his belt, he’s my presumptive favorite to start for UVA against Tarleton State on Monday and against most opponents that don’t boast a dominating interior presence.